…They’ve got populists in Europe, too. And media elites who cry “Populism!” whenever a politically incorrect opinion is uttered, especially about immigration.
Many thanks to JLH for translating this op-ed from Die Welt:
Populism — The Stupidest Insult of All
The reproach of “populism” is curious in terms of democratic theory: populists who call out populists. Do the CDU and SPD not want to be elected? Don’t they also have an eye on “the people”?
by Reinhard K. Sprenger
“Not in charge in one’s own house.” For over 30 years, the old Freudian saying has been interpreted anew by modern behavior analysis. Much attention was given, above all, to the works by Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky about behavior patterns that, in their opinion, were beyond the bounds of reason.
Human actions did not correspond with cool calculation, as these economists saw it. In essence, they claim, the human being is not qualified to make rational decisions.
This critique of rational utility maximizers was eagerly seized upon by political pedagogues. They sensed the opportunity to “scientifically” legitimize their conception of the human being. The ordinary citizen does not know what is good for him. He needs informed leadership — indeed, he has to be protected from himself.
No one has expressed this as baldly as Hillary Clinton: “We can’t expect our people to make the right choices.”
No Proper Democracies
One of the most recent applications of this portrait of humanity is the verdict: “Populism!” This handy accusation excommunicates anyone who does not conform obediently to the politically correct spiral of silence.
An argument that could be found in the program of the AfD or the Swiss SVP is no argument at all. It is grounds for icy silence, for an embarrassed looking away, or possibly talk-show-worthy indignation. Anyone who offers it is unworthy of contending with. More likely, a little bit nuts, not up to the complexity, stuck in a rightist corner where thinking has ceased and from which there is no escape.
And most important, populism rules there. There are no real democrats bopping around there, just fake democrats who only count votes. They are hard to distinguish from the real, normal democrats who give weight to votes. The former are dull idiots; the latter have a privileged access to truth.
The Populism Insult is Curious
People who often spend time abroad read everywhere about the same conceptual figure: the Swiss SVP, the French Front National, the Austrian FPÖ, the Dutch PVV, Trump — those are all resentful populists who are “leading the people down the garden path,” whom the “little” people follow like lemmings, allowing themselves to be deceived by simplistic mottoes and led astray. They only want to wipe out the “establishment,” criticize, never cooperate constructively.
Just count the articles published in recent months that warn of the increased influence of direct democracy in Germany. The tenor is: Triumph of Resentment! Tyranny of the Majority! Reactive Expressionism! As if Switzerland were an anarchic madhouse.
And yet the reproach of “populism” is curious in terms of democratic theory: populists who call out populists. Do the CDU and SPD not want to be elected? Don’t they also have an eye on “the people”? Wouldn’t more democratic acceptance of EU decisions be a good thing?
Are voters who do not stick to traditional choices just defiant children? Or do they have reasons to reject policies which will in future questions cancel out the people’s sovereignty? Quite rational reasons?
An Attack on Democracy
If we recognize that human beings always act in their own interests (not necessarily egotistically!), that they do not have only material motives, but make feelings-based economic calculations, have social preferences — then these internally informed reasons are quite rational. And we should be interested in those reasons.
What claims are hidden behind the hostility to Free Trade Agreements, the Welcoming Culture, the EU, burkas and same-sex marriage? It is not necessary to like the protagonists of these claims, nor share their philosophy and certainly not to wish for the consequences of their suggestions for action.
Their autocratic crusade for protection of “true” democracy and a homogenized “people” is presumptuous. But behind the reproach that they are populist is the precarious distinction between good, normatively rated voters and bad voters who are just numbers.
It is a distinction that says the reasons of this latter category of voters are not to be taken seriously. And this distinction militates against a liberal discourse and damages the rules of a community based not on consent, but on dissent. That is truly an attack on democracy.
1. “Prospect Theory” 1979 in Econamerica.
Photo: “A poke in the eye of political failures”: For many, the AfD is a populist party.